House of Commons Library

Pre-election period of sensitivity

Published Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Restrictions on the use of public resources are in place during the pre-election period before elections and referendums. The Cabinet Office issues guidance for civil servants on their conduct during this period. Local elections are taking place in most parts of England outside London on 2 May 2019. Local elections will take place in Northern Ireland on the same day.

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In the period immediately before an election or referendum there are restrictions on the use of public resources and activities of civil servants. During a general election Ministers remain in office and in charge of their departments but it is customary for them to observe discretion in announcing initiatives that are new or of a long-term character in their capacity as a minister. It does not prevent ministers from campaigning on their party manifesto in their role as politicians seeking election, but they must not use official resources from their ministry or department.

This pre-election period is also known as the ‘period of sensitivity’ and has often been referred to as ‘purdah’.

General elections

The pre-election period before general elections is not regulated by statute, but governed by conventions based largely on the Civil Service Code. The Cabinet Office issues guidance for civil servants in UK government departments, and the staff and members of non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) and other arm’s length bodies (ALBs) on their role and conduct during election and referendum campaigns. This is available on the Cabinet Office website.[1]  

Guidance for civil servants for the 2017 General Election was issued by the Cabinet Office on 20 April 2017. The pre-election period for the 8 June General Election started on midnight on Friday 21 April 2017.

Civil service guidance for local elections

In May 2019, local elections are taking place in most parts of England outside of London. All seats for local councils in Northern Ireland are also up for election. Polling day is 2 May 2019.

The Government is likely to publish guidance for civil servants soon. Civil service guidance was published for the May 2018 local elections on 11 April 2018. Guidance for civil servants for the local elections on 4 May 2017 was published on 10 April 2017.

The period of sensitivity for UK Government civil servants preceding the local and mayoral elections is not fixed to any particular date, but the general convention is that particular care should be taken in the three weeks preceding the elections.

Civil service guidance for devolved administration elections

The guidance for civil servants on their role and conduct during the election campaign period before the elections on 5 May 2016 (which included the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly elections) was published on 24 March 2016. A ministerial statement gave details of the different pre-election periods for the different elections on 5 May 2016:

The period of sensitivity preceding the local, mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections starts on 14 April, and in relation to the devolved administrations from 24 March for the elections to the Scottish Parliament; 30 March for the Northern Ireland Assembly; and 6 April for the National Assembly for Wales.[2]

Guidance for local government

There is statutory guidance for local authorities about publicity during the period just before local elections. The pre-election period is defined as beginning with the publication of notice of the election.

For the 2019 local elections in England and Norther Ireland the latest date for the publication of the notice of election is 26 March.

In 2017, the latest date for the publication of the notice of election in England and Wales was 27 March 2017. In Scotland, returning officers were directed to publish notice of elections on the earliest day possible, which was 13 March 2017.

The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity is issued under section 4 of the Local Government Act 1986. The Local Government Association has published Purdah: a short guide to publicity during the pre-election period which gives further information.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Separate guidance was issued by the Scottish Government for civil servants in Scotland before the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. The Welsh Government published guidance for its staff before the National Assembly elections. The Northern Ireland Executive published guidance on 7 March 2016.


The pre-referendum period for the EU referendum began on 27 May 2016, which was 4 weeks before the poll on 23 June 2016. The period before referendums is regulated by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. During the pre-referendum period before the EU referendum, central and local government were prohibited from publishing material relating to the referendum although some exemptions applied.

In April 2017, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (PACAC) Select Committee published a report on the lessons to be learned from the EU referendum. As part of that inquiry it considered the operation of the period of sensitivity restrictions on referendums included in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.


[1]    Election and referendum guidance for civil servants, GOV.UK

[2]    HC Deb 24 March 2016 c72WS

Commons Briefing papers SN05262

Author: Neil Johnston

Topics: Civil Service, Elections, General elections

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